Jesse Ketchum was one of early Toronto's most successful entrepreneurs and a very generous philanthropist.. At age 17, In 1799, he landed in York from Troy, New York, to join his brother and set up business near the docks on Yonge Street. His tannery at the southwest corner of Adelaide and Yonge Streets, stretched along Adelaide nearly to Bay Street, and down Yonge almost to King Street. Ketchum made a great deal of money selling leather to the government. From 1828 until 1834 he was a member of the House of Assembly. A Reformer but not a participant in the 1837 rebellion, he was affected by it and moved his business to Buffalo.
His two story white frame house, which stood at the northwest comer of Yonge and Adelaide Streets, had a flat-topped turret at the centre of the roof from which he could observe traffic in the harbour. He owned the block bound by Yonge, Adelaide, Bay, and Queen Streets and much property elsewhere in Toronto. He laid a path of tan bark along his property so that pedestrians could arrive in dry footwear.
He gave land and money for Knox Church and other religious and educational institutions. Among his donations were six acres in the Second Concession in Yorkville for the building of a school and the development of public parkland. This school, at the corner of Davenport and Bay, still bears his name. In 1837 he donated land to open up Temperance Street through his property, stipulating that alcohol should never be sold on the street.
Local craftsmen made military boots, providing a major economic boost for the community. In 1812 Jesse Ketchum opened a large tannery in the Town of York to make boot-leather for the British Army. His tannery was the first industry of any size in the community that was to become Toronto.
Jesse Ketchum's Tannery at Yonge and Adelaide, Toronto, c. 1815 (P.M. Fabriano/J.E. Middleton) 82k
In 1820, when Knox Presbyterian Church was founded, Canada was still almost half a century away from becoming a confederation of provinces. Toronto (then called York) was a town of 1200 inhabitants, less than half the size of Kingston. The war with the United States had ended just five years before. And our first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, was a small child newly arrived here with his family from Scotland.
The Town of York in Upper Canada, stretched from Lake Ontario up to Queen Street and spread west to St. George Street and east all the way to Berkeley Street (a little west of what is now Parliament Street).
One businessman who saw the potential for growth in York was Jesse Ketchum. A native of Buffalo, Ketchum built a profitable empire by buying land next to the newly carved military trail named Yonge Street. He used much of this land to grow vegetables, which he sold to nearby Fort York.
Jesse Ketchum and his wife were well-known not only for their business success, but also for their strong Christian witness. Mrs. Ketchum was generous with both food and spiritual nourishment to those in need. And Mr. Ketchum, who abstained from both tobacco and alcohol, insisted that everyone in their household, including employees, observe the Sabbath. Twice each day, the family would come together for devotions. It was through the Ketchums' love of God and willingness to share the riches God had provided them with, that our church was founded.
From his arrival in Canada in 1803, Jesse Ketchum had attended services at St. James, which stood then, as it does now, at King and Church Streets. When the Methodists built their church in 1818, Ketchum attended there and taught in the town's first Sunday School. Mrs. Ketchum, however, was a "Presbyterian at heart". She has been credited with swaying her husband towards the Presbyterian Church by welcoming all visiting pastors of the denomination into the Ketchum home when they visited Canada. Soon their home became a gathering place for other Presbyterians, for whom there was no place of worship in "Muddy York".
The first congregation of what was to become Knox Church met for two years in a potato barn, led by Rev. James Harris, a missionary sent by the Presbyterian Society of Ireland.